What does Masha from the play The Seagull tell us about the social, political, and cultural environment of Russia at the turn of the twentieth century?

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In Anton Chekhov’s play The Seagull, Masha is just one of many characters who feels unrequited love for another person.

The daughter of the managers of Sorin’s estate, Masha is a depressed young woman who uses alcohol and tobacco (snuff) to escape mentally from her boring, unfulfilling life. Part of the reason Masha is despondent is her unreturned affection for Treplev, who is in love with Nina. Meanwhile, a relatively impoverished teacher named Medvedenko is hopelessly infatuated with Masha. In his conversation with Masha at the beginning of act 1, Medvedenko asserts that she would love him if he were richer. Masha vehemently disagrees, arguing that poverty is tolerable as long as she can have the lover she desires. This shows that women during this time period were beginning to see marriage as a romantic pursuit rather than a means of economic stability or social climbing. This also shows that men largely thought women were only interested in men because of their wealth.

However, Masha eventually does marry Medvedenko despite her lack of love for him. This suggests that women like Masha were also willing to settle for an unhappy marriage if their quest for love was unsuccessful. This means that conforming to traditional gender roles was still seen as the only path for women. Masha likely felt societal and internal pressure to marry and have children when she realized that she could never have Treplev.

In act 2, the other characters in the play belittle Masha in various ways. Dorn insinuates that she is unattractive when he says that the twice-as-old Arkadina appears more youthful, and no one acknowledges her request of Nina to recite lines from Treplev’s play. This suggests that Masha is an outsider in this group. Unlike the majority of them, she is of lower social class and is not an artistic type. Their dismissal of her might reflect how class struggles at the time were beginning to cause political unrest—which eventually led to the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.

Each of these things regarding Marsha’s character arc reveal something about Russian society at the time.

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